RICHWOOD, W.Va. | It’s springtime, and across enclaves of Appalachia, hearts and minds turn to ramps.
The small, white bulbs with an onion-garlic flavor are dug out of mountainsides from March to June. The ramp remains a backwoods delicacy and a powerful thread that binds generations, family and community as the nation struggles to maintain its regional cultures, heritages and distinctions.
“Ramps is special - it’s your springtime tonic,” said Glen Facemire Jr., who, along with wife Norene, is proprietor to the nation’s only known ramp farm. Ramps show their green shoots during the zodiac sign of the Ram - Aries - in March and April, thus their name.
Mr. Facemire, in a rich, nasal twang that honors the backwoods where he cultivates, rises to tout the lowly ramp’s nutritional value and its myriad uses. Although a high sulfur content produces the bulb’s powerful smell, he said, to understand the ramp, “you really need to taste one yourself.”
It is a busy time of year for Mr. Facemire, a 66-year-old retired mailman who tills 50 acres at the foothills of the scenic Monongahela National Forest. He ships 30,000 bulbs and a host of seeds each year around the world, where ramps have become prized culinary comestibles.
His hometown of Richwood last weekend hosted the 71st annual Feast of the Ramson, one of several such gatherings across the region.
For the ramp “feed,” men from the small town trek to the woods to dig up the ramps and women gather at the local firehouse to scrub them clean for cooking. It requires 2,000 pounds of the leeklike alliums to serve the dinner for an estimated 1,200 people.
To break cornbread and fellowship around a food that was a staple for both American Indians and settlers, visitors travel two-lane roads through rolling hills and valleys into the heart of the Mountain State, to a 2,500-resident community that grew from a coal and timber boom and is now known as the “Ramp Capital of the World.”
People come to the festival for more than the fearsome stench of ramps, the beans and ham, the spicy sassafras tea and the tall layer cakes - homemade and sold by the slice as a labor of love.
“These folks have maintained a cultural identity that we are losing here in America around a tasty little garlicky bulb of a plant,” said Ali Berlow, who edits Edible Vineyard magazine from her home on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
“I love it that they have these festivals that have gone on for decades and that they are maintaining that connection to the earth,” said Mrs. Berlow, executive director of Island Grown Initiative and an advocate of locally grown and responsibly produced food. “Their cultural connection to food is really rich.”
Mrs. Berlow called ramps “yummy” and said they are particularly good scrambled in butter with fresh local eggs. “That is such a treat.”
At the Richwood Chamber of Commerce, Executive Secretary Vikki Mayse wasn’t so sure as she hustled to keep festival preparations on track.
“It’s a smell you have to acquire,” she said diplomatically to an outsider looking for the lowdown. “They do smell pretty bad.”
Confessing that she is not a native and moved to the area to retire, she said, “I’ve never actually tasted a ramp.”
In Richwood, she said, “we serve them at dinner as a side dish, like fried spinach. People who like them just can’t get enough.”
Although ramps fried in bacon grease are nothing new to Richwood, they have become big business, driven by fans of foodie TV programming and celebrity chefs.
Mr. Facemire laughed as he said his son ordered a side dish of ramps in a Seattle restaurant for $7. “Can you believe that?”
Ramps have been used by the western Cherokee Indians for centuries, he said, adding that the earliest Boy Scout handbooks list the ramp as a good survivalist food and that trout fisherman who camp at the nearby Cranberry River have been known to fry up a mess of ramps with their fresh catch.
Recipes featuring ramps are in the April issue of Bon Appetit magazine and in Mr. Facemire’s book “Having Your Ramps and Eating Them Too.”
“People here have pickled them; you can use them in gravy, in dips,” he said, adding that ramps are used as seasoning in omelets and brushed with olive oil for cooking on the grill.
Usually found fresh only at springtime farmers markets, ramps are praised by nutritionists and herbalists for their high vitamin C content, he said.
In Richwood, however, ramps are more than a simple food that has captured a national fancy. They connect neighbors, co-workers and relatives, many of whom have moved to the bustle of the big city as the coal industry struggled.
Ramps, they’ll tell you in respectful tones, bring natives home - and welcome in outsiders.
“Everybody here, we enjoy the camaraderie. Church groups get together and have a ramp cook-off. Fire stations sponsor ramp feeds to raise money,” said Mr. Facemire, a champion of the ramp.
“It’s just a time of the year that people look forward to that spring tonic, which is more than a cliche, by the way.”
Mrs. Mayse said the draw of the ramp is heartfelt. “I guess it’s the old ways. I think this is one thing that is not extinct yet. I think people here value their traditions, and heritage is important,” she said.
“People here in the mountains - they cling to that.”